What's the dark California history behind HBO's True Detective?
Hosted by Kevin Ferguson
Arts & Entertainment

The real 'True Detective,' season 2: What the heck is Vinci?

File photo: City of Vernon
File photo: City of Vernon
Eric Zassenhaus/KPCC

Listen to story

Download this story 19MB

Subscribe to Welcome to Vinci, our podcast about "True Detective" in iTunes and Stitcher. We're also mapping the show's significant and lesser known locations.

In the new season of HBO's noir TV series "True Detective," Colin Farrell's Det. Ray Velcoro works for the fictional city of Vinci, a city with a lot of secrets. But the fictional city has its real-life inspiration in L.A. County.  (Subscribe to our weekly "Welcome to Vinci" podcast in iTunes and Stitcher)

Vinci is in some ways the heart of "True Detective"'s new season. It's small. It's industrial. It's near downtown Los Angeles. And there's a giant water tower that says in big bold letters "City of Vinci." 

It's plain to see that Vinci has plenty of secrets to hide, and we'll learn a few of them as season 2 progresses.

There's no such city as Vinci in real life, but there is a place called Vernon, and it has a lot in common with Vinci.

Is Vernon the real life Vinci?

The two cities—the real Vernon and the fake Vinci—are both just minutes away from downtown Los Angeles. Like Vinci, Vernon is covered by factories, warehouses and train tracks. The water tower in that first establishing shot:

...is actually Vernon's water tower:

(Image credit: Laurie Avocado/Flickr CC)

Vernon was founded on Sept. 22, 1905, by the developer John B. Leonis, and from day one, Leonis wanted to build something different. He set the borders of Vernon near train tracks leading to and from downtown Los Angeles.

While "True Detectives"' Vinci has the relatively generic feel-good motto "Towards Tomorrow," Vernon doesn't bother: On the official city seal you'll find the phrase "Exclusively Industrial."​

​And in its almost 110 years of existence, it's abided by that motto magnificently. There are just around 100 residents living in Vernon's 5.5 square miles, but nearly 50,000 people go to work there every day. Vernon is a town designed to do business: it has its own water and power agency, its own police and fire department, its own health department.

And also like Vinci, Vernon has a history of corruption.

Leonis Malburg is the grandson of founder John Leonis. For 50 years he was mayor of Vernon before he was convicted of conspiracy and voter fraud in 2009 and sentenced to five years probation.

Hector Becerra covered the city of Vernon for the Los Angeles Times on and off. During that time he wrote about expensive city-employee salaries, cheap city-owned apartments, and the disappearance of a man named Eric Fresch.

The real life Ben Casper? (SPOILERS)

The first episode of "True Detective" season 2, "The Western Book of the Dead," concludes with the discovery of the body of Ben Casper, Vinci's city manager. His eyes burned out with acid, the corpse was driven to Point Mugu in Malibu. According the L.A. Times' Hector Becerra, Casper's death parallels the disappearance and death of Eric T Fresch, a Vernon city administrator.

In June of 2012, a state investigation of the city of Vernon was heating up, and all signs pointed to Fresch. "He was sort of a mysterious figure. By all accounts, very amiable, but media averse," Becerra said. "The city could never really account for what he did."

The state subpoenaed Fresch, but received no response. Fresch had vanished. That weekend, his body turned up in a State Park in the San Francisco Bay. "According the coroners up there, they said it was an accident. He slipped on a rock," said Becerra. "And it might be completely true, but when you talk to people from Vernon and elsewhere, there was a lot of speculation about whether it was true."

Becerra went on: "It's such a huge coincidence, at best. Let's say he had actually testified: You do wonder if he had, under sworn testimony told the truth and nothing but the truth, you wonder what he could've said, who he could've hurt?

Want more?  Subscribe to "Welcome to Vinci" via iTunes and Stitcher.